Op-ed: Trachtenberg should apologize for his comments on sexual assault

Laura Zillman is the vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault.

“No offense, but…”

“Not to be racist, but…”

Spoiler alert: Whatever comes next probably will be offensive or racist.

“Without making the victims responsible for what happens…”

So said former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, during a Tuesday interview on The Diane Rehm Show. What followed seemed to indicate that Trachtenberg sees sexual violence (or “misconduct,” as he lightly puts it) as the fault of survivors, not perpetrators.

Much of the segment is problematic, and not only on Trachtenberg’s part. One participant even suggests that colleges today have “a male problem” due to enrolling higher numbers of female students. But it is Trachtenberg’s comments that are the most upsetting.

“One of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave,” Trachtenberg said. “There are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children on that.”

When called out by his fellow panelists, Trachtenberg backtracked and said that he “didn’t anticipate being taken quite so literally.”

As the vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault – not to mention a member of the GW community – who sees rape culture and victim-blaming perpetuated with both words and actions on a regular basis, I am not exactly sympathetic to his shock.

The year is 2014, for those of you keeping track. I am disappointed and furious that people, especially in positions of power, continue to perpetuate the notion that sexual violence is in any way up to survivors to prevent.

Sobriety does not prevent sexual violence. Being able-bodied enough to fight an assailant, or even choosing to fight, does not prevent sexual violence. Suggesting otherwise implies that an “untrained” survivor of sexual violence is partially responsible for preventing it in the first place. Sexual violence is caused by perpetrators, never by survivors or their actions. Survivors should never need to “do their best” to prevent experiencing violence.

Trachtenberg later attempted further damage control, telling The Hatchet that a woman “should understand her limits because she will be less likely to be unable to fight off somebody who is attacking her.” The mental or physical state of a survivor is never an excuse to commit violence against him or her.

Statistically, about one in five college women will experience sexual violence during their undergraduate years. Being made to feel responsible for that violence, by people in power at the very university meant to protect them, is despicable. Trachtenberg led GW for nineteen years, but has shown himself to be anything but an advocate for students and survivors.

I call upon Trachtenberg to apologize for his words. I call upon the GW administration to publicly condemn Trachtenberg’s remarks, and make it clear that they are not supported. I join peers, professors and alumni in formally petitioning for these actions.

The ongoing administrative silence tells survivors and the GW community at large that any promise of survivor advocacy is empty at best – and an outright lie at worst.

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